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Ex-Situ: Archeaological Chaos Theory….

Chaos in the Classroom:

I actually received permission from my instructor to do this!

I have a tendency to freak out a bit, okay – a lot, when I have to do a class presentation and therefore, I neither enjoy either figuring what to do nor doing them so….  When the professor announced that everyone gets a good mark for their presentation “no matter what, you just have to do it!”  All of a sudden this enormous weight was taken off of my shoulders and I thought, “why not have fun?”

…and I did!

I cut paper meant for the recycle bin into small pieces and turned each piece into an artifact.  There were pottery shards, broken bits of things, gold jewelry, jewels, and pieces of cloth.  A small assortment of these artifacts went to each of the sixteen tables in the classroom.  The students immediately starting sorting the loot!

As I walked and distributed the artifacts I talked about Belzoni and the raiding of the temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt.  Then I asked, “What happened to it?  What happened to all of the artifacts that were taken from Abu Simbel?”

The class became quiet.  This really, really happened!  I asked, “Who has a nice piece of pottery?”  Several hands went up.  I walked over to one of the first and I said, “You just dropped that on floor and held out a garbage bag.”  She pouted and put the paper artifact into the garbage bag.  I asked, “Who has pottery shards?”  Several hands went up.  I walked around with the garbage bag and collected pottery shards and told one sentence stories about using the 6,000 shards at the bottom of plant pots.  I asked,”Who has gold?”  A hand went up near me – he really wanted to keep it.  It was shiny and perfect!  I asked, “Who has a piece of broken jewelry?”  Hands went up, some reluctantly….  My one story became, “you melted it down and had it made into a lovely necklace for your girlfriend.  She left you…”  And, I held out my bag.

I told a few very quick stories about owning an antique shop and some of the re-purposed treasures that have passed through my hands.  I talked about silk, its ultimate decay and what happens when it gets very old in an uncontrolled environment.

Back at the front of the classroom I did a Google search for Cycladic figures and talked about the loss of opportunity archaeologists are facing.

The other name for ex-situ artifacts are collectibles.  The shinier and prettier they are the more likely mainstream society will find the temptation to own one or a reproduction irresistible.

Studies have been done on ex-situ artifacts.  The book Dragons of Silk, Flowers of Gold: A Group of Liao-Dynasty Textiles at the Abegg-Stiftung edited by Regula Schorta is a good example.  These studies do put more knowledge out there, however, it is only knowledge about things, not about the people who made and used the things.

Archaeology isn’t just about things, nor is a museum.  Archaeology is about discovering our past.  Museums are about preserving it.

The final question in my paper, due next week, will need to deal with my thoughts on ex-situ artifacts and whether or not they should be purchased for preservation.  My opinion right now is that yes, they need to be purchased and preserved, however, doing so rewards those who are still looting, obtaining artifacts illegally.  Even though most people have a difficult time with the ethics of what Belzoni was doing in 1817, I do not believe that he was doing anything illegal.  Today, we know better.